Uncovering what’s truly going on what’s at the root of the disagreement will help you set aside your emotional reaction and begin to solve the problem. There are generally four types of conflict: relationship, task, process, and status. The common sources of conflict are neatly delineated here, but in reality, disagreements rarely fall into just one of these categories. More often, there are multiple things going on and a conflict may start as one type and expand into another.
A personal disagreement. Sometimes called an interpersonal or emotional conflict, it’s when one or both of you feel disrespected or hurt. It includes:
• Snapping at each other in meetings
• Exchanging snarky emails
• Avoiding eye contact in the hallway
• Interrupting, or talking over, a colleague in a meeting
• Using a condescending tone to indicate your disagreement
• Arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong
Quite often a relationship conflict starts as something else. A disagreement over a project schedule escalates to bickering that disrupts a team meeting. Or a difference of opinion on the company’s strategy devolves into a heated debate about who’s right and who’s wrong. You may both have valid points, and good intentions, but some disagreements turn ugly. Annie McKee describes it this way: “In a perfect world, we follow the textbook advice, treat conflict logically, behave like adults, and get on with it. The problem is, we’re not working in a perfect and none of us is perfect. We each bring our own baggage to work every day. And some of our issues— insecurity, the desire for power and control, habitual victimhood—rear their heads again and again.”
A team of functional leaders at TechCorp all agree that one of their best-performing products needs a new feature, but the SVP of product development and the SVP of engineering can’t agree on the ultimate goal. Their differing views gradually escalated from lively debate to a public blowout. Now they trade passive-aggressive barbs over group emails and interrupt each other in meetings. Some teammates have become so uncomfortable witnessing the interactions that they’ve started declining meetings in which they know both will be present. Not only do the SVPs disagree, they can’t believe that the other person doesn’t see it the same way. It’s no longer about what’s best for TechCorp and the customer. For both of them, it’s about being right.
The benefits of managing it well
There are typically few benefi ts to relationship confl ict, says Jeanne Brett. When our egos and sense of pride get involved, it’s painful, and challenging to manage effectively.
But even uncomfortable interpersonal confl ict can have positive outcomes. Jonathan Hughes, an expert on corporate negotiations and relationship management, points out that these types of disputes give us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our colleagues. We better understand each other’s values, working styles, and personalities and therefore build better relationships, “which creates a virtuous cycle,” he says. If you’ve established that you can successfully navigate conflict, you’re more likely to give honest feedback and challenge each other when necessary.
A dispute over the goal of a task or project or what you’re trying to achieve. This includes disagreements about:
• The agenda for a staff meeting
• How the success of a new initiative should be defined or measured
• Whether the customers or the employees should come first
• How much risk a company should assume when partnering with other organizations
• Whether to prioritize revenue or customer satisfaction
“The most common form of task conflict in organizations is functional,” explains Brett. Marketing, legal, and finance may look at the same problem and see it completely differently. For example, marketing may lobby to put the customer first, while legal’s aim is to protect the company from risk, and finance is trying to cut costs. Each may argue that their perspective on how to solve the problem is more important. “In reality, all those viewpoints and each functional way of addressing the problem are relevant and should be integrated into the solution,” says Brett.
The functional leaders at TechCorp all agree that they want the new feature, but they can’t agree on the objective. Marketing sees it as an opportunity to expand the company’s market share. Finance is focused on improving the business’s margins. And the engineers on the team care about developing something cool that integrates the latest technology. If they can’t agree on what success means for the new feature, they won’t be able to move the project forward—or even worse, they’ll each take it in a separate direction, wasting time and the company’s resources. The engineers spent all weekend developing a prototype of the new feature, but the finance managers are worried that it will be too expensive to produce and the marketing lead isn’t sure users will appreciate the added functionality.
The benefits of managing it well
When we have productive discussions about our different views of project goals or how we should define success, we gain valuable insights, says Hughes. “We live in a world of finite resources, and this type of conversation is helpful in terms of coming to smart decisions about which trade-offs to make.” Should the new feature have less functionality and be more affordable to make? Or is it important to delight customers so that they stay with the company longer? At TechCorp, the new feature is likely to be more robust and useful to the customer precisely because each of the functions is pushing its own agenda. The new feature won’t satisfy everyone, but airing each group’s goals is likely to serve up new ideas and generate productive conversations about what will make the feature successful—more so than if the team had just driven toward one person’s objective.
Please read the next section in part 2.